Defenders of the Forgotten Fish


On a cirrus-streaked May afternoon in southern Washington, a gaggle of middle-schoolers stares at the eel-like creature writhing in Yakama Nation’s fisheries program leader Emily Washines’s gloved right hand, skepticism etched on their faces: you want us to touch that thing?

It’s hard to blame them: lampreys rank somewhere between cobras and crocodiles on the charisma spectrum. The fish’s slimy, boneless body culminates in a tooth-studded “oral disc,” which it can use to suction to larger fish and slurp its host’s bodily fluids. Supersize a leech to the length of a baseball bat, give it three fangs surrounded by rows of smaller teeth, and—voila—you’ve created a Pacific lamprey.

But while lampreys may not win any piscine beauty pageants, they’re crucial members of Pacific Northwest ecosystems. Larval lampreys are filter feeders, capable of improving water quality as they inhale nutrients. Meanwhile, the oily, lipid-rich adults—“the bacon cheeseburgers of the stream,” as one biologist puts it—provide sustenance to everything from bears to mink. From plankton to plants, sturgeons to sea lions, if it flies, swims, or crawls in the Northwest, it’s probably closely linked to Entosphenus tridentatus.

The lamprey’s ecological importance, however, has not earned it much respect from Homo sapiens. Human industry and infrastructure have pushed Pacific lampreys into steep decline, yet only recently did we notice their disappearance from creeks like Toppenish. The Northwest is salmon country, and lampreys—secretive, homely, without angling appeal—were long its forgotten fish.

In recent years, the lamprey’s plight has at last attracted public concern. In the Columbia River Basin, the vast watershed that drains seven American states and one Canadian province, lampreys are the target of a multi-million-dollar recovery effort, spearheaded by the Yakama, Umatilla, Nez Perce, and other native tribes for whom the lamprey is a cultural and culinary touchstone. If lampreys return from the brink, it will be the tribes who brought them back.

Tribes began taking matters into their own hands by translocating lampreys into streams above fish-impeding damsThe festive release into Toppenish Creek is one such translocation. Last summer, Yakama biologists captured lampreys at Bonneville Dam and trucked them to a laboratory. The transplants lived there for 10 months in a concrete tank, not even eating, before finally ending up in Emily Washines’s bucket and being turned loose by the squeamish middle-schoolers. (Unlike salmon, which spawn soon after entering fresh water, Pacific lampreys can take up to three years to get in the mood.) In 450 million years, few lampreys have ever experienced such a strange journey.

The Yakama hope that lampreys will beget lampreys. While salmon hone to their natal streams, lampreys appear to follow the pheromones of their own species, wherever those smells may lead. It’s a clever strategy: if adults and ammocetes are laying down chemical trails upstream, it suggests fish are spawning and the habitat is livable. It also means that if you plant a few ripe lampreys in a creek like Toppenish, they may lure others.

“Ultimately we want natural production,” says Patrick Luke, the former lamprey biologist who spearheads the Yakama Nation’s Pacific Lamprey Program. Like Emily’s uncle, Davis Washines, Luke grew up with lampreys—he roasted the fish on sticks, hot dog style, over campfires, and his relatives rendered their oil into an ointment for cuts and earaches. “There’s an Indian law that says we need to take care of our foods, and our foods will take care of us.”

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article: Ben Goldfarb
photo: David Herasimtschuk/Freshwaters Illustrated-USFWS


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